James Cardinal Hickey, who stepped down as archbishop of Washington in 2000, died Sunday morning at 84. Seldom eloquent, too self-effacing to convey a sense of gravitas or presence, Cardinal Hickey possessed a single attribute that made him a critical figure all the same: holiness.
In the early 1980s, Cardinal Hickey testified before Congress about nuns who had been murdered by paramilitary forces in Central America–nuns he had known when, before coming to Washington, he had served as bishop of Cleveland. When the Left seized on Hickey’s testimony, using it to attack the Reagan administration, the cardinal’s secretary, a friend of mine, gave me a call. The cardinal, he explained, was appalled. I was able to arrange a private luncheon between the cardinal and then Vice President Bush. I don’t know what the men discussed–both kept the meeting confidential–but I suspect Cardinal Hickey briefed the vice president on the Church’s human rights activities in Central America and then made clear his own determination never again to permit himself to be used for partisan purposes. Other American bishops may have proven openly political–the bishops, you’ll recall, published pastoral letters opposing Reagan’s nuclear and economic policies–but Cardinal Hickey refused to join them.
Yet as a prelate, Hickey proved dogged, even fierce. He compelled officials at Catholic University to ensure that those licensed to teach the faith taught the faith, ultimately forcing Fr. Charles Curran, who disavowed Catholic sexual morality, to leave the University. When the Jesuits at Georgetown University began celebrating special masses for “Dignity,” a homosexual organization, Hickey forced them to stop, and when Georgetown funded a pro-choice student group Hickey not only insisted that the University reverse itself but dedicated the masses celebrated throughout his archdiocese one Sunday to reparations to Our Lady for the offense that Georgetown had caused. The abuse of children by priests? When cases came to Hickey’s attention, he turned the matter over to law-enforcement officials, making the name of each priest public. And when during the first Gulf War even otherwise clear-minded bishops such as Cardinal O’Connor of New York opposed American intervention, Cardinal Hickey instead applied to the conflict the traditional precepts of the “just war,” pronouncing Desert Storm a moral undertaking.
Serving in the nation’s capital, Hickey might have permitted himself a degree of pomp. Instead he lived austerely. Once his secretary showed me the cardinal’s private rooms. There wasn’t much to see: just a tiny, sparsely furnished bedroom and, next to it, the little chapel in which the cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C. began and ended each day on his knees.
Priest, bishop, patriot, saint. James Cardinal Hickey, R.I.P.